By Kevin Fayle on June 25, 2009 12:30 PM | No TrackBacks
The events that have unfolded in Iran following the contested
presidential election have transfixed the world. Much of the
information that has come out of (and into) the country has traveled
over social media services as a result of censorship and blocking of
communications systems by the government.
The crisis in Iran has allowed Twitter, the microblogging service, to
mature into a legitimate and important communication tool. Twitter
has played such a prominent role in allowing mobilization and
documentation of the Iranian opposition that the US State Department
at one point even asked the company to put off a scheduled maintenance
so that Iranians could continue using the service.
Iconic images and videos, such as the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan
(warning: the video is graphic and disturbing), have flooded out of
Iran and the protesters have used the service to organize rallies and
spread information. Twitter has also been instrumental in allowing
outsiders to read real-time reports about the events in Iran, all
despite the fact that the government has actively attempted to block
communication of the turmoil to the outside world.
Twitter has become the default method of communication about the
Iranian situation because of one primary characteristic: openness.
Despite the fact that the government has blocked the Twitter site
itself, there are many websites that utilize the Twitter Application
Programming Interface (API) and allow users to read others' tweets and
post their own. The Iranian authorities don't always know about these
sites in order to block them, which allows Iranian citizens to
continue to tweet about the events as they occur.
Those interested in following the unfolding events or tweeting about
something related to the Iranian election can also utilize another
feature of Twitter, called hashtags, in order to read reports on the
election and direct their comments to the right conversation. A
hashtag is basically a keyword with a hash symbol in front of it.
People place hashtags in their tweets in order to make it easier for
others to locate posts on a particular topic, and users of the Twitter
search function can search for those hashtags in order to easily find
the conversation threads they're after.
For example, the two most popular hashtags used to identify a tweet
about the Iran election are #iranelection and #gr88. A message using
one of those hashtags might look something like this: "more protests
in the streets of Tehran #iranelection".
Twitter has definitely had an overall positive influence in the midst
of the Iranian tragedy, but there is also a possibility that the site
could become a tool for the security forces to track down and suppress
those posting to the service. Since data on the internet can live
forever, and since people communicating over the internet leave traces
that they might not be aware of, those Iranians using Twitter should
be cautious, lest they inadvertently identify themselves or those
around them as members of the opposition protest movement.
The success of Twitter in keeping communication flowing in and out of
Iran despite the governments attempts at censorship reveals that
technology can be a powerful tool against oppressive regimes. The
metadata about tweets and the publicity of the messages can also
create danger for those actively using the service to spread news and
organize political protests, however. Like most things in life,
Twitter is a double edge sword that, when used properly, can be a
great benefit. When used carelessly, however, it can lead to woe and
Regimes like those in China and Iran try very hard to control what
their citizens see and do online. Some argue that this violates the
right to freedom of expression guaranteed by several international
treaties, as well as the laws governing international trade. Tools
like Twitter that are difficult for the regimes to control can help to
keep citizens of the countries connected to the outside world, and
give them a voice when the government tries to silence them. This in
turn can help ensure that all individuals can enjoy the rights
guaranteed to them under international law.
Tyranny's new nightmare: Twitter (LA Times)
Cyberwar guide for Iran elections (Boing Boing)
HOW TO: Track Iran Election with Twitter and Social Media (Mashable)
Unrest in Iran raises profile for Twitter (MercuryNews.com)